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Monday, May 05, 2008

Lightning, Thunder & TV

As I noted recently, forget the debate and deliberations over recession. We’re in one, just by virtue that suspicion of recession gives people pause and they slow their spending. The truth is this: by the time we get data, we’re in the next quarter and reacting to prior data. And remember this: 100% of the information you have is from the past, yet 100% of the value of the decisions you make and actions you take (based on that data) lies in the future—which is, as yet, unknown.

Biology, physics and astronomy offer analogies for reflection. Light travels faster than sound. About five times faster. We first see the lightning bolt dance followed by the thunder clap’s applause. And there’s information in the silence—as the duration of delay gives us rough information as to the distance from downpours. Count the seconds between flash and boom and divide by 5 and it’s roughly how far in miles the lightning struck. (And remember at any time there are 2,000 thunderstorms happening somewhere on the earth, each producing over 100 lightning strikes a second—that’s over 8 million lightning bolts every day).

Our brain processes sights quicker than sounds yet we’re still always reacting visually to the (nearer) past. When we see, we see light bouncing off an object. Yet split milliseconds pass between the lightning bolts of light striking our eye and the maelstrom of neural activity that processes it. We are observing the past.

Consider the sun. Light travels at about 186,300 miles per second. A beam of light from the sun takes about 480 seconds or 8 minutes to reach Earth. Our closest star, Alpha Centauri is 4.35 light years away (how far light travels in one year). If we saddled up and rode that light beam it would take 4.35 years to reach the star. So when we see it, we see the past: the star as it was 4.35 years ago. Shakespeare might’ve been remiss to know his star-crossed lovers were wishing upon a future by looking upon the past.

There are two things young kids need to have: first, the right heroes and second, a deep desire to learn. The former can help inspire the latter. But there’s no replacement for either.

According to Science magazine, nearly half of Americans cannot name a “role model” scientist, living or dead. And only 11% can come up with the name of a living one.

Scientists are not seen as role models. When asked who today's youth look to as role models, most named an entertainer (31%), athlete (19%) or parent (17%). But when asked about science role models, 44% could not identify one.

When they can name someone, Bill Gates and Al Gore are the most cited—6% of the sample—the same percentage as Albert Einstein. Al Gore as scientist! Talk about availability bias.

There’s also a study (from Pew Research) that found for every 5 hours of US cable TV news, only 1 minute is devoted to science. Over 10 minutes are spent on celebrity news and nearly 30 minutes on crime. Here are the stats:

In the average five hours of cable news:

* 35 minutes about campaigns and elections
* 36 minutes about the debate over U.S. foreign policy
* 26 minutes or more of crime
* 12 minutes of accidents and disasters
* 10 minutes of celebrity and entertainment

On the other hand, one would have seen:

* 1 minute and 25 seconds about the environment
* 1 minute and 22 seconds about education
* 1 minute about science and technology
* 3 minutes and 34 seconds about the economy
* 3 minutes and 46 seconds about health and health care


Think about this! We spend 10 times more attention celebrating celebrities than inspiring a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Other studies suggest our national high-school graduation rate is worsening. I’m sure the statistics are debatable but I continue to observe (anecdotally) this troubling trend. If you’ve got 100 students in a school and only 60 graduate, what happens to the other 40? Do they have your trust to manage your money? Would you give them your tax dollars to make national decisions on your behalf? Would you get in an airplane designed by their hands? If this trend continues, the rank of the skill-less swell and the future intellectual deficit widens. We’ve just sold off another piece of our future.

And that means more people with less competitive education, less differentiated skills, less money (for the absence of both) and less opportunity. Think of it like this: in a competitive game with one of the best home field advantages in the world, a growing number of players on-deck seem to be mediocre and ill-equipped to compete. If our home team is weak, we’ll need to import players with star talent. Who would’ve thought a 7-foot-6 Chinese player would be the tallest player in the NBA and the center of the Houston Rockets. Or that a Japanese player would be an all-star on the Yankees. Why won’t the CEOs, scientists and entrepreneurs of the future be the same?

Remember this: if we don’t value something, someone else will. Communist Russia and China tried to hold all as equal—but one group was clearly more equal than others: the scientists. They were always held in high esteem, whereas US scientists have not been and I see a rising trend of US scientists increasingly consulting for foreign companies. Again: if we don’t value something, someone else will.

What I worry about is this: we celebrate those that make noise (and divert our attention like a cymbal-clapping simian) instead of those that make cures (scientists). We divert our attention and our time to a nation of performers, models and “adults” who compete to see if they are smarter than fifth graders.

To spend four hours being entertained is to spend 25% of your waking life and your day staring at flickering radiation that tickles your visual cortex. Don’t get me wrong: I love TV and I watch a lot of it. But I read deeply and widely. And I’m competitive. I love playing sports, but tire of watching them. Years ago I calculated that while my primate peers watched 6-8 hours of football on Sundays, and another 6-8 hours of basketball during the week, I could be learning something they weren’t. They were celebrating the competitive talents of others—I wanted to develop my own. I was a bigger fan of my own future (and my own future family) than I was of the all-star (and his family) on TV who could bounce a ball better or run in tights faster.

The most valuable investment you can make is in yourself. To trade learning or creating something new today for idle (or Idol) entertainment tonight will have consequences you feel tomorrow. In this, tequila shots and TV shows share something. The monarchy of centuries past sat imbibing on food and drink while being entertained by jesters. We’re all kings now. And a future dethroning for many of us will surely, but should not, come as a surprise.

We hyperbolically discount the future, a vestige of our evolutionary ancestors. We choose $100 today over $110 tomorrow (yet $110 a year and one day from now over $100 a year from now). And in so doing, we push up the value of the trivial, the wasteful, the bacchanal, and the debauched; and we devalue and discard the long-term patient diligent and highly contributory.

In education, most prescriptions look at the supply side: more teachers, more school supplies. I believe it’s a demand problem and kids need to want to learn, like they need to want to eat healthy foods. Putting more apples in front of them doesn’t make them pick apples over candy.

Too often we act on symptoms and mistake effects for causes. Consider the anecdote of the man by the river. He sees a girl floating by yelling for help. He jumps in and saves her. Minutes later, another girl goes by. The man jumps in again, saving the second girl and then another passes by. It turns out some villain is throwing girls off a bridge up the river. The man fixed the symptoms but not the root problem.

by Josh Wolfe

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